Random photos are random

Today’s the end of our first month of exclusive home cooking. I’m proud to say that I haven’t cheated even once, despite the lure of my favorite glazed old-fashioned doughnuts while getting groceries, the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee while walking through the skywalks, or the memory of Scenic Route Bakery’s cranberry scones fresh from the oven.  *whelp*  Truth is, the desire comes in waves (hello, PMS, so good of you to join us today) but it’s much much easier now. Making my own KICK ASS gingerbread cookies certainly helped, too.

There’s been a lot of photographing of food around here lately, which has garnered me some much earned mockery. “Can we eat, or do you need a picture first?” I’m falling in love hard with the texture of food though and just can’t seem to get enough of it. Enjoy a few random food-related pics on this OMG cold day. If you want the recipe for anything, just send me a message (made that easier).

 

PS –
Kara: hope you’re enjoying those cookies as much as I am!
Suzette: I’ll address the meat-eating with vegan-focus soon. It’s not as incongruent as it might seem.

Fun Fact: when one smoke alarm goes off in my house, ALL the smoke alarms go off

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Don’t do this to your sweet potatoes

Things you might be wondering:

  • What did sweet potatoes ever do to me?
  • Why would I put these vitamin A bombs through such trauma?
  • How did I manage to burn the crap out of so many while others were left mushy and undercooked?

Well, sunshine, it’s a skill. And I’ve got it.

It turns out that oven roasting sweet potatoes is NOT the same process as oven roasting other types of potatoes because they’re sweet. That’s right! The higher sugar content makes a difference. A big difference. An important difference. Now if I had read the section on sweet potatoes and not just assumed that they would behave the same as regular potatoes, this crime against vegetables, this plant travesty, could have been avoided. But I did not. So I’m having to pay the piper, take my medicine, and swallow my pride.

Now listen to your Auntie Jamie here, boys and girls. If you’re trying something new and you have a recipe or a really cool cookbook devoted to “Better Home Cooking Through Science,” go ahead and take the 10 minutes to read that section on it. I’m not saying study it, commit it to memory or carve it into your forearm for perpetual reference, but go ahead. Get crazy. Read it. Consider following the recipe the first time around.

And if not, make sure you have something else to prepare after you get done fanning the screaming smoke alarm, opening the closest windows, and burying the evidence of your misadventure under onion skins, a mandarin orange netting, and that clump of slimy spinach you didn’t eat fast enough earlier in the week. Not I ever do that.

On the upside, our cyclists can’t make it tomorrow after all so we had plenty of food in the house that could get diverted. Tuscan white bean soup to the rescue.

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Earlier in the week, we made a variation of this Black Bean Soup, substituting veggie broth for the chicken to keep it vegan and using 1 green and 1 red bell pepper instead of 2 green since that’s what we had in the fridge. After cooking, we found the broth not quite as thick as we’d like, so we’ll probably add another can of black beans and reduce the broth by a cup next time. I say next time because the overall flavor was good, it was pretty quick to prepare and clean up was easy. A great option for those nights we need to cook, eat, clean up and get out the door again lickety-split.

Because my sweet tooth needed a reboot – *tears* ok, it soooo didn’t – AND because I made the mistake of reading what sounded like a nice, easy recipe on the NY Times cooking app AND because I had everything I needed already in the cupboard, I made gingerbread cookies to go with my morning cup of tea. They’re so good. I’m both lazy and a fan of efficient storage so I didn’t use cookie cutters or frost them but, instead, cut them into rectangles and patted myself on the back. None of the flavor leaked out. For the record, they freeze really well and re-soften nicely sitting on top of a steaming mug.

PS – The recipe is hidden behind the NYT paywall but if you really want it, let me know. I just might be able to get it to you. If you ask nicely. And you really like gingerbread. I’m not risking my reader-in-good-standing status for someone that’s wishy-washy on the gingerbread front.

Bokeh, baby? Beef, please.

Title doesn’t make sense to you? No worries, in my head it’s quite amusing.

Yesterday I signed up for a class to push my photography knowledge and comfort past the stage that it’s been at for some time. Confession: I hate getting my camera, even just my iPhone, out when other people are around – at home, in public and (especially) around friends. I enjoy taking pictures, but around others I feel clumsy, awkward, skill-deficient, bumbling. So when I’m out in public or roaming with friends, guess what usually gets left in my purse when I see something amazing? Yeah. That needs to change.

It’s especially hard to share my photos with others. A quick iPhone snapshot? Well, not easy but ok. Something I’ve worked at, something I’m proud of: excruciating. If I send a photo I’m proud of to a friend, they’re trusted more than they probably realize. Instagram is my dump file more often than not. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s the way things really are. My skills need work certainly, and I need to practice a lot more to be sure, but more than anything my goal is that this course will help increase my skill set in general and my comfort level in particular – to help me get out of my head so I can share what I see in the world and (more importantly) how I see it. But photography is something I value and I’m willing to work at it, so here goes.

It’s like speaking and writing Dutch. No, it’s not perfect. No, it’s not comfortable. Sometimes it’s not even remotely good. Yes, I make a lot of mistakes. Yes, my accent is atrocious. But I am a foreigner and it’s not a great tragedy when I mess up either; it just feels that way – and I need to commit to doing it more.

Dalla cucina:     (<– infant Italian language skills in action)

Last Sunday Jeff and I faced down another 5 pound roast, went toe to toe with it, prepared it as The Food Lab instructed, rested it two days in the fridge as recommenced, and tonight when we pulled it out, warmed it back up and set to noshing on it, it was… fine. Not as tender as we’d expected, but decent flavor and certainly edible. It was, in short, remarkably similar to the first one we prepared and we’ve conceded defeat with this recipe. It’s frustrating (not to mention expensive!) but not devastating. It’s just dinner. We had a good time making it last weekend, laughing and joking and talking and singing throughout the prep work. It was a pleasure to be in the kitchen together and that’s the most important thing.

I much prefer the pot roasts I’ve made in years past and I think we’ll revert back to that preparation (with the addition of a bottle of wine in the sauce – glug, glug, glug) should we ever decide to make another one (which frankly, I kind of doubt, since we rarely eat that type of food anymore). Having had red meat twice in two weeks, and braised chicken legs last week (omg they were sooooo good), I’ve got a slew of vegan meals lined up for the coming days and weeks to help get our carbon balance and cholesterol levels back on track.

I think I’m going to crank out some gingerbread cookies this week. I’ve a hankering for them again and they’ll go well with my morning cup of tea. Sunday’s Open Table is going to be vegan small plates for some of the summer cycling crew. We’re all cranking out lots of watts on indoor trainers around the city this winter, so Jeff and I are planning to make enough to feed a small army. A wool- vs lycra-wearing small army.

What are you cooking and/or baking this week? Cooking for you or cooking for a crowd?

Shall we meet at Canning Town or Baker Street station?

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Why yes, that is a tea towel map of the London Underground.

Some meals lend themselves better to long-distance (and long-duration) phone calls than others. One-pot soups definitely fill that bill. Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise Sauce, not so much. So today I tucked the phone against my ear and built up a batch of split pea and ham soup while a friend and I talked, teased, gossiped, caught up, kvetched, encouraged, giggled, and lamented a seller’s market.

World problems solved: 0
Minutes spent in a non-stop smile: approximately 90
Vegetables chopped: 3 (onion, carrots, celery)
Freezer bag of leftover ham pieces: 1
Bags of split peas: 1
Cups of veg broth: 3
Cups of water: 4

This is one of my favorite wintertime soups. I make it without even thinking about the fact that there IS a recipe for it, let alone looking at it. It reminds me of cold nights when lake effect snow blew deep, fluffy piles up around our doors and we kids prayed for the all too rare snow day. It reminds me of steamy opaque kitchen windows shining bright while running back to the house after carrying water buckets to the horses in the barn. It reminds me of wet mittens dripping and snow pants drying after a day of sledding The Hill or snowmobiling with grandma and grandpa. It’s simple and non-frills and deeply nourishing. It reminds me of my mom.

Oh, and a big wave to Rachel. I’m not sure what the fascination is, but I hope you like soup.

This is what happened when lazy and cheap met and had a baby on my stovetop.

Pasta e Fagioli
(made about 6-8 Jamie servings, your mileage may vary)

Tonight’s almost vegan soup (I ran low on veggie broth so finished up with some leftover chicken broth blocks from the freezer) got major raves for flavor and was cheap, fast, and easy to boot. 45 minutes and it was in my belly.

My guess is you probably have everything – or at least most – on hand already. Hungry? Ready? Good, me too. Grab a pen.

Melt together on medium heat:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter/butter substitute in a large soup pot

Sautee in the above:
1 medium onion, diced fine
5-6 cloves garlic, minced – I used 6
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes – smoked red pepper if you have it on hand

Add:
28 oz can diced tomatoes
4 cups vegetable/chicken broth
2 – 15 oz cans red kidney beans, the whole thing – liquid and all
2-3  bay leaves
Stir together. Turn heat to high. Bring to a boil.

Lower heat, keep at easy simmer for next 20 minutes, stirring occasionally

Add:
1 cup small pasta, cook until al dente (see package instructions)

Stir in:
2-3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped fine (if using dried, add in with the other herbs)
pepper to taste (probably enough salt via the canned veggies)

Serve with:
Good, fresh bread (I chopped a leftover half of French Boule into large cubes)
Jeff’s suggestion: That little bit of leftover, finely shredded parmesan cheese? Add some to each bowl. (Was yummy.)

PS – Toss the bay leaves before eating

Did I speak too quickly?

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The only part of our meal that went as planned

There’s something depressing about taking a 5# slab of beef, a bottle of wine, the usual onions and root veggies, and cooking them all low and slow — only to have it and the potatoes fail to soften to fork-tender like you were expecting. It appears that our cookbook had a typo and we were instructed to cook the pot roast too low, but for the right amount of time.

We salvaged things as best we could by boiling the potatoes for a while in the sauce, at the same time we were reducing it by half. The meat tasted good, we dropped it and the sauce and veggies over some wide egg noodles, and everything was edible – if kind of ugly – but it took about an hour longer than planned and it just wasn’t quite “right.”

From beginning to end, it was frustrating. Jeff and I got on each other’s nerves when the reality of the layers of mistakes came to light, but it all came out fine in the end. Good wine and patient neighbors who are always ready to be pleased made up for a lot of our  newbie mishaps. The cannoli they brought for dessert were a sweet end to our time together, too.

No failures (yet) but some flubs

We’ve been working our way through a lot of leftovers this week for lunch and dinner – chili, tomato soup, an impromptu linguine in spicy marina sauce (for an out of town friend that surprised us by being in town on business), yet another round of chicken and vegetable noodle soup. You get the idea. It’s always a surprise to see how much we get out of a recipe that says: makes 4 servings. I don’t know who they expect to be eating, university football players maybe, but it appears that they sure don’t expect you to be eating anything else! No bread, no salad, no roasted veg, nothing. Even with our largest bowls tonight, we still had at least two servings left over after all was said and done. Into the refrigerator the extra went.

Tonight we had a pair of friends over (one vegan, one vegan-ish) to help us eat the Miso Vegetable Soup with Rice Noodles that I made up in the slow cooker. It was good, simple, cheap and not bad, but also not tremendously flavorful. The broth was vibrant but the rest was nothing to write home (or blog) about. I ended up doubling the white miso paste halfway through cooking as things were clearly a bit too bland. I don’t think I’ll make it again but I won’t regret having to finish off the leftovers either, so I count it as a draw and not a win.

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Miso soup about to cook down, pretty unappealing at this point

Earlier, Jeff and I made big, fat, greasy-spoon-style omelets for breakfast. Eggs, mushrooms, red bell pepper, onions, spinach and cheddar. We cooked them a touch too long so, after folding, the bottom was clearly too browned, but they were filling and delicious nonetheless. I couldn’t finish mine, which is a rarity. Most impressive was that, eaten at 10:30 am and with nothing more than the most minor of snacks around 2:30 pm, they held our hunger off until our friends arrived for dinner at 6:30 pm. Way to work it, omelets.

The French press continues to elude our ideas of coffee perfection but we got much closer today. My guess is that with continued practice we’ll be humming along to Place de la Rèpublique and discussing the finer points of yeast selection for pain au chocolat in no time.

Tomorrow will find us finishing out the Open Table meal that started this afternoon and is still in the oven as I type. All I’m going to say at this point is that it smells amazing and my fork is ready.

Victory of the day: We’ve used up all our odds and ends so we met our goal of no waste in the kitchen – touchdown dance – but I would like us to plan better for the week to come. Leftovers for days on end was a bit dismal on these cold, winter days. I like a steamy, fragrant kitchen when the weather is so inhospitable.

 

 

Relationships and commitments

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A little backstory for reference, some friends had their first baby a week before the year ended. Having a kid grown and gone, it’s fun watching the whole process begin again – without the sleepless nights, sore body, ears on high alert and perpetual dead arm from carrying an infant around nearly non-stop. ‘Auntie’ duty is waaaay easier than Mommy duty. Dirty diaper, back to dad. Fussy hungry baby, back to mom. Contingency plans for ev.er.y.thing and finding yet another mystery stain on your favorite shirt? Hmm sounds familiar but I might be blocking it.

OK, back to task. So the new dad is not American and in his country it’s the norm for the new dad to gather with friends at the local pub for a drink in the first few weeks after a child’s birth. Are you saying, “Well, this presents a dilemma now, doesn’t it?”

Well, to me, the answer is “Not in the least” because a) these friends are aware of and very supportive of our decision to refrain from restaurants, cafe’s, bars, etc; b) we had already visited with them and shared a congratulatory drink (with the dad) the day after the wee one was born; and c) when the “Sorry, would love to but, ya know” went out the response was “Ok. It’s just the tradition back home. It’s going to be fun, all the guys are invited, would have enjoyed having you there too.”

To Jeff, however, it became a major dilemma in his mind. His friendships were on the line. He wasn’t being responsive to a friend. Things were at risk of going belly up if he didn’t go. And anyways, It’s just a drink. (Insert a bit of side eye here from me.) You get the idea. This was, by the way, the 4th of January. Halfway through the first week of 2019.

Long story short, he went. I visited the new mom at their place for the evening. When we reconvened later that evening, I laid out my disappointment with his decision and the reality that things like this are going to happen throughout the year. Where do we draw the line? When is a reason “good enough” to break this promise we made to each other and when is it a convenient excuse? What about being responsive to our commitment? What did it say that he couldn’t even get past the first week without buckling? We both went to bed angry, not even gonna lie. But Saturday dawned new and life goes on. Today, he admitted that the change in our going out habits has been rather harder than he expected it to be and apologized for some on-going surliness this past week.

So what’s next? Well, I’ve said my piece, didn’t rant and rave, but definitely made my feelings known. I’ve moved on with the knowledge that I can’t make his commitment stick if he chooses not to, but that I can and will hold myself to the decision we made. My guess is that Jeff won’t make breaking this promise a regular habit. I hope that it will be a one-time blip and that we’ll laugh about it in months to come.

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Yesterday, we had our first Open Table lunch for friends. We made Pantry-Basics Tomato Soup and Two-Sided, Extra Cheesy, Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with frosted brownies for dessert. Comfort food at its most basic, easy to prepare, and delicious. We did a repeat tonight with the leftover soup and, like chili and spaghetti sauce always are, it was even better as the flavors definitely mingled and mellowed overnight in the refrigerator. We made some no-frills grilled cheese sandwiches to go with it which were more to my liking, but Jeff missed the in-your-face bite that the grated parmesan melted onto the outsides gave to yesterday’s sandwiches.

Chicken, veg, noodles and a sharp sharp knife

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Look at the gorgeous texture of those noodles and vegetables

The brand new year, 2019, arrived at the stroke of midnight as it has a habit of doing every 12 months. With this turn of the calendar, however, things took a significant turn for my household. Goodbye spendy restaurants, sunny cafés, kitchy diners, and cozy pubs; hello shiny new kitchen shears and sheep’s foot paring knife. Time to get chopping.

Yesterday I made a spatchcocked (butterflied) whole chicken (use kitchen shears to remove the backbone and then splay it out in a rather unceremonious manner on a roasting sheet) and roasted an embarrassing amount of Brussel sprouts to go along with it. The chicken reached the desired temp in record time – 45 minutes! – but the veggies about 10 minute earlier, so we noshed on caramelized goodness while the chicken finished roasting and resting. That’s right you naughty bird, you just lay there and think about what you’ve done! Luckily Jeff doesn’t mind his meals in shifts from time to time.

With the backbone, skin, wings and bones, I made a batch of stock that bubbled away for a few hours and added some nice moisture to this dry, winter cave of a home. I swear, if you even look at the floor rug out of the corner of your eye lately, you’ll feel an electric current racing up your right thigh.

After another attempt at poached eggs for breakfast this morning — finally, success! — and a light lunch of toast and apricot jam (don’t judge), I got down to the serious business of making some soup with the remaining chicken breast, the usual vegetables, some greens (a boatload of kale and a bit of fresh parsley), egg noodles, and that luscious stock from the day before.

I cut the carrots and celery on the diagonal because I was feeling fancy. No simple rounds for us, old chap. And instead of a small onion, I finished off a large half one that was napping in the fridge, cutting it quite thin instead of the usual dice. I’m glad I did too, as the onion nearly melted into this really nice, silky texture without any need to sauté it beforehand. Less work, great flavor, and one less pan to wash. (Please hold your applause until the end of the meal. Thank you, thank you.)

Rice could have been used instead of the egg noodles I suppose but, let’s be honest, rice is dead boring sometimes. I wanted taste and texture, not just bulk and filler. Now, now, don’t go sending me any pro-rice hate mail. Yes, sometimes rice is the best starch out there for a given meal, but for me and my family, we choose egg noodles (for our chicken soup).

All in all, a decent way to begin the new year in the kitchen.